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The paradoxical nature of freedom of speech and hate speech

By Rivka Witenberg - posted Tuesday, 2 July 2019


Universities and the media are awash with discussions and arguments for and against freedom of speech.  Israel Folau’s assertion that freedom of speech permits him to express his views based on his religious beliefs are widely discussed in the media currently with no agreements whether he is entitled to say what believe in.  Some argue it is hate speech but others disagree.  That his open expressions could be harmful to some cannot not be disregarded. How can we guard against harmful or hateful speech when freedom of speech is highly cherished in democratic societies? Undoubtedly, education has a role to play above and beyond legislation and regulation.

We learn at school that freedom of speech is completely and absolutely protected and this is also a position which many academics and rights activists adopt. Unfortunately, this position is also held by people who express prejudicial ideas and beliefs, arguing that it is their rights to say what they want. However, there are some well-defined limits to freedom of speech. We do not have to think too hard to realise that calling out “fire” in a crowded theatre cannot be accepted on the basis of freedom of speech. This is just one example often used which challenges the idea of the absolutist position in regards to freedom of speech.  There are other restrictions on freedom of speech related to regulations and laws such as defamation laws, privacy laws and possibly other rights.

Commonly hate speech laws in Australia deal with vilification on the basis of race, nationality/ethnicity, country of origin, religion or sexuality. Laws curbing hate speech are undoubtedly valuable. However, I believe there are implications from the findings about the nature of freedom of speech for civic curriculum development and education. Strong beliefs in freedom of speech are not innate and do not occur in a vacuum. They are learnt. An important step in the development of the coordination of basic human rights in young people is the realisation that there are socio-moral limits to freedom of speech when it is in conflict with tolerance and acceptance (and possibly other rights). 

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Education should promote reflective individuals who are able to understand the interaction between freedom of speech and its limitations.  In my research about tolerance and acceptance of diversity and difference, a number of studies in Australia have shed some unanticipated light on the relationship between freedom of speech and tolerance. Even though generally acceptance of others was surprisinglyhigh with students rejecting prejudice and intolerance between 70% and 80% of the time, the major constraint to acceptance of human diversity was not necessarily prejudice itself but beliefs in freedom of speech as a democratic right to express beliefs which are prejudicial in nature.

We found that age was a strong predictor of beliefs about freedom of speech.  While none of the six to seven-year olds in our studies appeal to freedom of speech, many of the older students assumed that it was acceptable to openly express prejudicial beliefs for themselves and others " because we have free speech in this county" or " we have the right to have our own opinions and also talk about them too”, subordinating tolerance and acceptance to freedom of speech. In fact, the subordination of tolerance and acceptance to freedom of speech was most evident in the 18 to 22-year olds.  It was viewed as a right, as the following example illustrates.

If a person wants to tell such things (for example, prejudicial beliefs towards an Asian) he can do so because this is a free society and we have no right to persuade him otherwise – he has the right to say what he wants.’ (Male, 18-19 years)

This argument highlights the paradoxical nature of freedom of speech and its complex relationship with tolerance and acceptance to human diversity. The paradox lies in the nature of both freedom of speech and hate speech and how we define them.  The Oxford dictionary defines hate speech as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.” Freedom of speech, on the other hand, is defined as “the power or right to express one's beliefs and opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.

Education aimed at promoting basic human rights needs to focus more on developing socio-cognitive skills, reflective thinking and moral integrity which will enable students to consider human rights, the conflicts between them and their coordination.  And most importantly the responsibility that comes with freedom of speech.  Of course, education cannot eliminate all hate speech but it can increase the understanding that hate speech is not just another form of speech but that it has potential to harm and even hurt others.

Educating for a conscious awareness about the tension between basic human rights such as freedom of speech and tolerance and its resolution is educationally and socially important in diverse societies such as Australia. This form of education would be suitable in the adolescent years when cognitive maturity and the development of conceptualised knowledge enables abstract thinking which allow for consideration and coordination of different aspects of a problem.  Upholding human rights requires the capacities to distinguish between different rights and their relative merit. 

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According to the philosopher John Stuart Mill, the only legitimate ground to interfere with our liberty and coerce us is to prevent harm.  Hate speech can and does cause harm. Reflective thinking moves the person from assuming that freedom of speech is irrefutable and that there are limits to freedom of speech so that it cannot be used to vilify others, to support intolerance, prejudice and attack the integrity of others.  With freedom of speech comes the responsibility of not misusing it. For teachers andeducators this is a clear challenge to rethink this relationship and promote reflective individuals who are able to understand the interaction between freedom of speech and its limitations.

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About the Author

Rivka T Witenberg is an academic, researcher and author. Her book Tolerance: The glue that binds us was recently published in NY.

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